Class and Power in a Stateless Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007

The Role of Political Islam

The main surprise about political Islam in Somalia is not that it has emerged as a force, but that it took so long to do so, and has been hostage to other political formations—specifically the interests of certain urban groups and, after the formation of the TFG, the Hawiye clans. Despite the concerted efforts of local, diaspora and foreign Islamists, no significant Islamist constituency has developed in the country.2

In the 1990’s, political Islamic groups such Al Ittihad were unable to challenge the dominant clan factions for control of Somali political affairs. But they carved out a significant niche, using a combination of international connections and finance, and appeal to certain local constituencies. International connectedness has been key to political Islam in Somalia. It has facilitated the operation of financial services and has enabled access to Islamic philanthropic resources. This has meant that Islamists have some influence within all major factions.

In contemporary southern Somalia, organizing a party requires organizing a militia. This was the Islamists’ major challenge. Meeting it required either obtaining a clan base, co-opting a breakaway faction of an existing clan militia, or setting up an entirely new militia. In the early and mid-1990’s, Al Ittihad tried the third variant: setting up its own forces. It enjoyed financial strength and external technical assistance. However, it was never able to compete with the principal clan factions for control of a major town. After failures in Bosaso and Merca, it was left in the marginal area of Gedo (upper Jubba valley). Here, Al Ittihad was able to gain a following among the indigenous minorities of the area, especially the Gabwing, who were dispossessed of their land by the Marehan in the 1980’s and not protected by the USC in the 1990’s. Building on the tradition of city-states ruled by Islamic law (Bardhere was one in the 19th century), Al Ittihad set up a non-clan based administration in Luuq that treated the Gabwing and other minorities fairly. In particular, it allowed them access to land; however, the Gabwing were not incorporated into Al Ittihad leadership structures for their coalition to be anything other than an opportunistic alliance. From the Islamists’ point of view, a small minority group like the Gabwing did not form a sufficiently powerful or cohesive constituency to provide a foundation for a wider political strategy.

Al Ittihad depended on external supply for its forces, including links to al Qa’ida. This made it hostage to a wider agenda of confronting Ethiopia. In 1996, this strategy backfired when the Ethiopian army decisively intervened and overran its headquarters at Luuq, killing 23 foreign militants. Thereafter, the jihadist presence was reduced to one rumored training camp at Ras Komboni in the southern tip of Somalia and less than a handful of individual militants with no significant support. The Islamists instead focused on non-military strategies. The 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war provided an opportunity for reviving external military linkages, as Eritrea provided weaponry to those ready to support guerrilla activities in Ethiopia. However, the Ethiopians again showed themselves ready to intervene militarily in Somalia against any group that represented a potential threat.

The political logic of southern Somalia was sharpened but not fundamentally changed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. “war on terror.” The U.S.’s first action was its most effective: it published a list of names of individuals supposed to be linked to al Qa’ida. Because Somali politics depends so heavily on business, and all Somali businesses are engaged in import-export activities and international financial transactions, blacklisting individuals is an extremely effective way of rendering them business risks and reducing their political capabilities. This also demonstrates the fallacy of comparing Somalia—globalized and transparent—with Afghanistan under the Taleban, isolated and totally opaque.

Subsequently, the Islamists emerged as a powerful force in Mogadishu for the following reasons:
  • Islamic organizations targeted the unmet needs of urban society, notably in providing schools. 
  • Islamists were able to organise significant support among the political marginal urban class of Merca and Brava. This group, the historic core of the coastal trading centres, was relatively wealthy though not a major beneficiary of the state largesse of the 1980s. Not militarily mobilized, they suffered heavily during the war.
  • The business class of Mogadishu found the Islamists a useful mechanism for providing law and order, through Islamic courts, which in turn provided an opportunity for the Islamists’ re-entry into military politics, through court militia.
  • The exclusion of most reputable Hawiye leaders from the TFG drove Mogadishu leaders towards the Union of Islamic Courts as a credible alternative. The violence unleashed by rival militia leaders backed as “anti-terrorist” groups by the U.S. further drove urban residents to support the UIC. This then provided the UIC with a clan base and hence a militia.
  • Eritrea, following its policy of opportunistically supporting any non-state actor ready to confront or undermine Ethiopia, supported the UIC with arms.
Thus, while the UIC began to forge the first political contract in southern Somalia that was not premised on aid resources and sovereign rents, it did not address, let alone resolve, the fundamental problems at the root of the conflict. Excluding the Darood and hence the entire class of real estate and business interests that had dominated the state in the 1980’s, and thus most of Mogadishu, it was setting itself up for inevitable conflict with that fraction of the business class and its clan militia. Caught up in the regional Ethio-Eritrean conflict as well as playing host to a small number of jihadists, it was certain to attract military attention from outside Somalia. Facing Ethiopian forces, the UIC played the nationalist card and gained some sympathy as a result, but it did not command sufficient inter-clan consensus for this to translate into national mobilization.

In summary, the progress of political Islam in southern Somalia arises from two long-term unmet needs: social service provision and law and order (especially for the commercial sector). The Islamists have been able to move beyond these micro-level successes only by latching onto other economic and clan agendas. During 2006, the Islamists made rapid progress by making common cause with the collective clan interests of the Hawiye, but the clans can abandon the UIC just as easily as they embraced it.


The above analysis attempts to construct an analytical framework for understanding Somalia today. It puts into perspective some of the otherwise-puzzling elements of the Somali crisis and points to some potential measures for creating peace and reconstituting government.

Most diplomatic and political initiatives to establish a Somali government frame their concern with reference to the lack of central authority that has existed since January 1991. The problem is, however, at least a decade older than that. The nature of the Somali state in the 1980’s, and specifically the manner in which it controlled ownership of productive resources and markets, and used its power to selectively enrich certain fractions of the mercantile class, is both a historical reality of enduring significance, and also a major determinant of the nature of the ongoing conflict today. If the end result of the process of establishing the TFG and imposing its control on Mogadishu is simply to re-create that same kind of mis-government, Somalia will remain in conflict.
We can locate the stabilization of Somaliland and Puntland in the provincial dominance of certain fractions of the mercantile class, which have succeeded in establishing control over state-like institutions. This has been made possible by the absence of major property disputes rooted in earlier state patronage of specific fractions of the business class. In the Jubba and Shebelle valleys, and hence Kismayo, the resolution of land ownership questions is the prerequisite for stabilization. In Mogadishu, competition between fractions of the mercantile classes is sharpest of all, because of the level of investment in real estate during the former regime, and the anticipation of the rewards accruing to the future capture of state power. Imaginary resources, in the form of sovereign rents and aid flows, lie at the heart of the impasse. The UIC represented a step towards resolving this problem, but insofar as it had an almost exclusively Hawiye political base—excluding the Darood “landowner” class, its solution had inherent limitations. The TFG has precisely the complementary limitations: it must deal with economic realities that have emerged during the last sixteen years and not simply dismiss the assets acquired by the newly-emergent fractions of the mercantile class as illegal. Lasting legitimacy will come not from international recognition, donor funds and military power, but from radically restructuring the relations between the state and the productive and commercial sectors.

The policy implication of this analysis is that the current strategy to address the Somali problem—namely establishing a national government as a prelude to addressing the issues of resource ownership—will only lead to another round of conflict, over both real resources (farmland and real estate) and sovereign rents. International recognition, including financial and military assistance to the government, is part of the problem. The donor reflex of pouring in funds to support the TFG and its institutions runs a serious risk that it will sharpen the conflict and create a new round of instability. Only if the TFG addresses the economic basis of conflict and stabilization will it be able to overcome the structural problems that have prevented Somalia from achieving peace for thirty years. 


1 This discussion draws upon, inter alia, Catherine Besteman and Lee Cassanelli (eds.), The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The war behind the war, Westview, 1996; Garth Massey, Subsistence and Change: Lessons of Agro-Pastoralism in Somalia, Boulder, Westview, 1987;
Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, James Currey, 1997, chapter 8; Roy Behnke, “Range Enclosure in Central Somalia,” ODI Pastoral Development Network Paper 25b, March 1988; Ahmed Mohamed Abdullahi, “Pastoral Production Systems in Africa: A study of nomadic household economy and livestock marketing in central Somalia,” Wissenschaftsverlag Vauk Kiel, 1990; Peter Little, Somalia: Economy without a state, Oxford, James Currey, 2003; Vali Jamal, “Somalia: Understanding an Unconventional Economy,” Development and Change, 19, 1988, and the author’s field notes from Somalia, 1988, 1993 and 1994.

2 This discussions draws upon, inter alia, Roland Marchal, “Survey of Mogadishu’s Economy,” European Union, 2002; Tatiana Nenova, “Private Sector Response to the Absence of Government Institutions in Somalia,” World Bank, 2004; International Crisis Group reports 2004-06.